J.N. Campbell Commentary: Monmouth Gray ... The Transitional Era of the Riding Crop

J.N. Campbell offers this opinion-piece on how we might interpret the events surrounding last weekend's Haskell Stakes and the riding crop issue at Monmouth Park.
J.N. Campbell offers this opinion-piece on how we might interpret the events surrounding last weekend's Haskell Stakes and the riding crop issue at Monmouth Park.

The riding crop “lab experiment” at Monmouth Park continues to garner headlines, and copious amounts of wagging fingers. The latest running of the $1 Million Haskell Stakes crystallized poles of the argument, for and against, as Doug O’Neill’s Hot Rod Charlie clipped the front legs of Steve Asmussen’s Midnight Bourbon in the stretch. Both the colt and Paco Lopez went down in a terrifying moment for horse and rider (all were “ok” …). After jockey Flavien Prat bobbed ahead in the end, the Monmouth Stewards set to work, delivering swift justice with a “DQ.” O’Neill, Prat, and the colt’s well-known connections were placed last. As Brad Cox’s Mandaloun made his way to the Winner’s Circle, it began to dawn on many that perhaps the lack of control exhibited by “Hot Rod’s” rider was because of one thing … and one thing only … he didn’t have free use of the riding crop.

I think that there is something extremely transitional about the ban of the crop at Monmouth. It is a piece of technology that evokes several lines of debate, depending on your perspective. Stepping back and looking at the situation it could be interpreted as what programmer and blogger of the site Interfluidity, Steve Randy Waldman calls a “gray technology.” That is, an innovation that begins as a veritable social or economic earthquake. The “Establishment” views this as something which needs to be derailed or excessively restrained. Think Amazon’s assault on the used book market, leapfrogging Abe Books … or the federal government’s regulation of the food industry at the beginning the 20th c. The “gray area” doesn’t always lead to success for the upstart … as evidenced by blue jeans vs. parachute pants, when it comes to universal adoption.

What it comes down to is how alt-practices seek, and thus gain, permission. Monmouth Park, which is owned by the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority and operated by Darby Development, bills itself as a “horseperson’s” racetrack. Pushing the proverbial envelope, the New Jersey Racing Commission (NJRC) have sought to ban the use of the riding crop because they believe it is a relic of a bygone era. In the 21st century, in order to attract new fans, you cannot have jockeys “hitting” their mounts, they reason. The world of horse racing has limited its use, so Monmouth is taking the most radical of positions. This is the case even with an implement of expert design by former rider and entrepreneur Ramon Dominguez; his model in fact does not inflict pain on the horse. As usual, image is everything. Perspective trumps …

The guffaws from the established decentralized world of North American horse racing not only comes from other states, who are not ready to take the plunge and fully ban the “whip,” as it was formerly known. Calls are also emanating from the Jockey Guild of America, who sees this move by the NJRC as putting the lives of their membership in mortal danger. Jockeying can be a lethal business, and recently a rider died in an accident in Oregon. Going 35 mph on the back of a muscular Thoroughbred is not for the faint of heart, and it takes a highly-trained professional to compete in even the most basic of claiming events.

Last week in Monmouth’s signature race, the crop issue took on even more social significance, as Prat’s inability to control Hot Rod Charlie took center stage. He claimed in an interview afterwards that not being able to use the crop was a direct result of the accident that ensued. Most “pro-crop” enthusiasts heartily agreed, seeing this as a pivotal slice of the historical pie. The status-quo has a way of telling those that are repugnant, “I told you so.” Revolutionaries responded by standing pat, arguing that the process ran its course.

What I find most intriguing about the Haskell “situation” is what didn’t happen. If the events in the lane were so dangerous, couldn’t Prat have used the crop to control his mount? That is specific in the Monmouth rulebook, isn’t it? A point … jocks have already put it to use (in one instance, without any penalty), and it is certainly within their province. In that split second, did Prat make the wrong choice because he was worried about being flagged, and thus disqualified? Maybe he didn’t want to admit when TVG put the question to him in the post-race interview. Some of this is conjecture, but it is part of the discussion, and the best way to move forward. If winning, so the saying goes, is everything, then maybe the rules could have actually protected Prat, his fellow riders, and most importantly, their horses.

I don’t necessarily think the New Jersey’s progressivism concerning the riding crop will last. But that’s not the point. Skepticism reigns in a decentralized sport like this one. The Garden State folks didn’t exactly poll American racetracks, or assemble in a tennis court for an oath. They marched themselves up the ladder of the high dive at the Olympic swimming pool, and dove in head first. Conflict rolled out accordingly, but think of it this way … had they not sought this course, wouldn’t the discussions right now be fairly boilerplate? Who else but Monmouth could rise? In other words, as Waldman discusses with other movements like the adoption of cryptocurrency, “new equilibriums” emerge, which lead to the embracing of the “new,” or at least “alternative” visions of the original underdog idea. That’s what we are headed for in the wake of Monmouth.

The central question becomes a variation on the Gladwell-esque Tipping Point … a two-parter … a series of specific moments, where diffusion seeks mass adoption … Can the NJRC's move to ban something seen by a larger public as barbarian, force other places to do the same? It depends on several specific modes of futurist behavior … The first is a healthy mix of debate, with good ole Marxist-type struggle. As the tug-of-war continues, mainstream riding crop proponents will continue to preach safety and security, while those against will trot out that evolution dictates a change. Monmouth and the NJRC explicitly told riders that they could carry the instrument, and use it when it was deemed necessary. That might be the lynchpin where the debate hinges. Regulations can be restricting, but they also can help the established norms shift tectonically.

As the “gray” hues on the horizon do become “clear,” the long summer at Monmouth is measuring up to become one of those significant events that could change the sport. Will the track be a beacon or an island? Right now, not asking for permission, but seeking forgiveness appears to be their approach. How that works out can only be solved through conflict and negotiation. The center may not hold, and the result could be something that is still quite transitional for the sport.

We will know, when we know …